Saturday, June 10, 2006

Living on Glass

My friend Tony and I have driven for an hour into the west along the north coast of Scotland. The green fields of Caithness with cattle and sheep have given way to the moor lands of Sutherland with long swaths of heather turning from brown to purple as it starts to flower. The brown grey tan is punctuated by gorse in riotous yellow bloom and rocky outcrops of white grey or pink. Sheep have replaced cattle and wander freely along the road because the open hills are not fenced.

In a few more miles there are no houses, no sheep, and long stretches of golden brown with grey stone and hills in the distance. The road through this landscape is good, albeit a single lane. Remnants of the old road are visible here and there winding along through the bogs and sometimes curling up to the new road. A long way from anywhere sits what my friend Tony has called Moyne House. Years ago when he was actively climbing the hills in the distance, the climbing club used this house as a bothy. It had been by the side of the road then and on the gable end of the simple stone house was an inscription to those who had managed to create the road. In that broad stretch of emptiness with secret silent rivers of water in the peat-sponges it must have been quite an achievement. Now Moyne House has lost its roof and even the memorial is worn so that the text is no longer legible.

From Moyne House, it is another hour's drive to our destination: Laid (Leathad in Gaelic), "the slope down to the sea." Place names either from the Gaelic or the Norse of the Viking explorers have in common a tendency to be descriptive. Laid does indeed slope down to the sea. Laid was created in about 1830 when residents were cleared to this area to make way for sheep. Throughout the highlands there are stories and testimonies in relic stone walls and houses of the people cleared from their homes. The process was a long and slow one. The earliest clearances came without an outcry but later clearances, such as this, captured the imagination of socially conscious writers of the time.

The clearances were probably inevitable as agricultural practices changed, but the dislocation of thousands of people has left scars on the minds as well as the lands of the highlands. Laid has no village hall, no post office, no store, and no school. The 40 people who have come to hear about the regeneration of woodlands have swamped the resources of this tiny village. Three crofts have combined to share their stories, with another crofter who is also an artist offering a tour of her home and studio three miles down the road. The local cafe has been closed for the day to accommodate us, but it is too small for all of us to sit inside, so we have morning sessions in a tent on the lawn. The weather is perfect, so a tent on the grass is festive.

After preliminaries, Hugh Maclennan, one of the three crofters hosting the event, gives a brief history of Laid and the day they decided to start planting trees. A superquarry planned to set up operations nearby because, according to a local paper, Laid was already nothing but a jumble of rocks. The clearances helped populate Canada and the United States with displaced Scots. Hard working and sturdy, the expatriates tended to fit in well and many became very successful. The Scots who remained, however, are every bit as sturdy and can be fiercely proud. The superquarry underestimated the few residents left in Laid. Today there is no superquarry and Laid has nearly doubled its population--to 40.

One of the first questions from this audience of foresters, nurserymen, conservationists, and members of community woodlands, is what kind of soil are these trees growing in? A member of the audience answers, "basal quartzite, like glass." The practical part of my brain thinks about porosity and mineral content and wonders how on earth trees can grow in such an environment while the poet-metaphor making part of my brain is hijacked with the image of a village perched on glass like a collection of miniatures on a curio shelf.


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